Regulating The University Mind

I blame my dad. As a mature student of geography and Russian at Glasgow University, he used to take me and my wee brother Kenneth to the campus in the west end of the city, just off Byres Road in Hillhead. Gilbert Scott’s Gothic creation, fulfilling its mundane task as the main university admin building, still sits atop Gilmorehill, overlooking Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Kelvin park and, to the north, Ben Lomond and the Trossachs on a clear day.

We would walk through the quadrangles of Gilmorehill to find the bookshop or, better still, climb the spiral staircase to the Hunterian museum, with its marvellous collection of rocks, minerals, fossils, coins, Roman artefacts found locally – yes, the Romans made it this far north! – and other treasures.

To an impressionable ten-year-old, the world’s horizons were expanded beyond my imagination. No wonder, despite toying with the idea of studying elsewhere, I ended up a student in the same place eight years later. Yes, I blame dad.

Four years of studying physics and astronomy and – no mean feat – how best to evade the persistant, anger-driven hawkers of The Socialist Worker newspaper on the steps leading up to the Queen Margaret students’ union. The hawkers are still there to this day – perhaps the sons and daughters of my generation.

Why should I be thinking about all of this stuff from my youth, and more to the point, boring you – poor reader – with it? Perhaps because almost ten years have passed since I moved back from industry to a university environment; an environment that increasingly is under pressure to build links with commercial interests and to develop a culture of ‘entrepreneurship’ while boosting student numbers (think of all those lovely big fees they have to pay now) and maintaining standards of excellence in research and teaching.

But beyond that – well, there’s much, much more. I didn’t realise it then, back when I was an undergraduate, but now I can see that universities and other institutions of higher learning are even more important than I realised. This is a priviliged sector where critical thought and enquiry into human society, nature and the cosmos ought to be the norm; not where overwhelming pressure to conform to state-corporate interests should be exerted on teaching and research agendas.

How can academic ‘collaboration’ with large corporations which are, after all, centralised systems of illegitimate power, +not+ lead to compromise, distortion or worse. It would not be in the interests of such institutions to promote rational and honest study into the problems of a corporate-shaped society.

It +is+ in their interests to commandeer publicly-funded research while co-opting ‘neutral’ and ‘objective’ academia as ‘partners’. And all the better if highly trained university researchers working in narrow, focussed disciplines remain disconnected from the interests of academics in other disciplines or, more importantly, from the concerns of the general populace.

‘To work on a real problem (like how to eliminate poverty in a nation producing eight hundred billion dollars’ worth of wealth each year) one would have to follow that problem across many disciplinary lines without qualm, dealing with historical materials, economic theories, political obstacles,’ historian Howard Zinn points out.

‘Specialisation ensures that one cannot follow a problem through from start to finish. It ensures the functioning in the academy of the system’s dictum: divide and rule.’ Zinn provides a potent example: ‘Note how little work is done in political science on the tactics of social change. Both students and teacher deal with theory and reality in separate courses; the compartmentalisation safely neutralises them.’

Any management vision of how a university ought to develop that does not recognise the nature of the iniquitous capitalist society in which that university finds itself embedded is short-sighted. And, moreover, any such ‘vision’ that is not committed to making radical changes in the way society is structured is tacitly, if not actively, supporting the status quo. The same argument applies to any major institution in society.

So, when the Vice Chancellor (the CEO, if you like) of the university where I now work – Southampton University in the south of England –requested feedback to his creditably widely-circulated vision statement,I felt compelled to reply in an open letter. I hope that you may be able to make use of some of the arguments – and indeed improve, expand and develop them further – in your own place of work and study.

Dear Vice-Chancellor,

Thank you for the opportunity to respond to your vision as set out in recently distributed documents. There is much that deserves to be applauded, including an ongoing commitment to academic excellence, building cross-disciplinary initiatives and widening access into higher education. Also, developing a vision that has the broad support of a diverse university community is a massive challenge. Your openness in discussing this vision is very welcome.

There are four major areas of concern that I have:

1. It appears that under external funding constraints – a large part of which is the need to seek support from industry – there is a risk that there will be a concentration and narrowing of disciplines in which the university seeks to maintain high standards.

I believe that the real mission of a major university – researching and teaching the broad range of human experience and nature in its entirety – could be compromised in practice by the proposed restructuring into three faculties.

You state early on that your vision ‘is further informed by the changes in the external environment for Higher Education, regionally, nationally and internationally and by assumptions about future changes.’ Perhaps these external conditions and assumptions – largely determined by government policy (itself heavily influenced by corporate lobbying) – need to be challenged with greater vigour by the universities.

2. The university is a major employer, not just locally but regionally. Many of its support staff, particularly in lower-paid positions, come from disadvantaged groups (including women). The university should be making a greater commitment to being an equal opportunities employer, providing significantly better than average pay and working conditions wherever possible, i.e. doing more than simply being ‘competitive’. Indeed, perhaps the university should consider a policy of positive discrimination in favour of disadvantaged groups in society.

3. It is heartening to see the statement of the first core value of the university, namely: ‘freedom to push the frontiers of knowledge forward, within an ethical framework, for the global good of mankind.’ You also rightly acknowledge the need for a ‘truly multidisciplinary holistic approach to address the scientific, socio-economic and cultural aspects’ of addressing the ‘ “big issues” facing society’.

Beyond this, however, there is no statement of the university’s commitment to environmental or ethical standards in its own practices, e.g. in its purchasing of goods and services. Large corporations, such as Shell, now publicly place the environment on an equal footing with health and safety (whether they do so in reality is doubtful: see below).

The university has a major ‘ecological footprint’ in terms of its consumption of resources and impacts on the wider community. The university also has impacts through its financial investments: these have the potential to be used for greater social benefit. Your vision ought to reflect the university’s responsibility for taking a leading regional – perhaps even national – role in environmental and ethical standards.

4. You make a commitment to commercialisation of research and entrepreneurship, but this is not matched by any stated commitment to the right to dissent or express scepticism about working with transnational corporations (TNCs) or, indeed, any commitment to undertake critical studies of the dominance of elite state-corporate forces in society.

If the latter is +not+ an issue of serious university concern, the silence could be interpeted as acquiescing in an inequitable system of economics that supports global poverty, military terror and environmental devastation.

You claim that the university has ‘totally transparent and ethical processes for its interactions with the commercial world that protect the interests of individual staff as well as of the institution.’

What are these ‘transparent’ and ‘ethical’ processes? There is a direct contradiction here with the short-term profit imperative of companies: they, of course, are required to operate ‘legally’ but are not typically bound by norms that provide for environmental protection, social justice or a genuinely sustainable economy.

The question arises whether there are any criteria – environmental, social, ethical or otherwise – that ought to guide the university in determining which companies it may be acceptable to do business with? Some of the companies that ‘sponsor’ research here may, or may not, produce annual audits of their environmental and social impact. Should this be of concern or not?

Many TNCs actively oppose action taken to limit human-induced climate change (some blatantly oppose the Kyoto Protocol through their sister companies in the US) and/or lobby behind the scenes at the EU and WTO and other business fora to ‘liberalise’ international rules governing trade and investment; for ‘liberalise’ read ‘restrict or even lower standards designed to protect health, labour conditions, jobs and the environment’ (see my own recent book ‘Private Planet’ for more details).

Final remarks:

The bottom line is there should be a greater commitment by universities to press for increased government support for academic (and teaching) excellence, without having to appeal to commercial considerations.

Working with small and medium-sized enterprises, especially those that are locally/regionally-based and contribute to a sustainable economy is to be welcomed. Seeking funding from large corporations that frequently damage the environment, impose huge job losses or threaten social justice is a different matter.

This contradicts the first core value of the university, namely: ‘freedom to push the frontiers of knowledge forward, within an ethical framework, for the global good of mankind.’ There is considerable evidence that ‘commercialisation’ of university research is, in fact, a public subsidy for private interests (see, for example, George Monbiot’s recent book ‘Captive State’);.

Whether or not you would agree with this view, there is a growing public perception that universities are providing intellectual support for corporate usurpation of the global commons and state violence carried out by the powerful nations of the west.

yours sincerely, David Cromwell

‘When in the ancient world the whole economic structure was based on personal slavery, the greatest intellects did not notice it’, wrote Leo Tolstoy. ‘To Xenophon and Plato and Aristotle and to the Romans it seemed that things could not be otherwise, and that slavery was an inevitable and natural outcome of wars without which the existence of humanity was unthinkable.’

The university intellectual of today remains, by and large, ignorant of the personal slavery upon which today’s global economic structure is built.

As sober professionals, academics are not supposed to step outside constrained fields of knowledge to criticise the private interests that threaten the global climate system and inflict mass human rights violations. Professionals are supposed to restrict public statements to topics that do not reflect badly on their employers or funding sources. Adopting such an ‘impartial’, ‘apolitical’ role ensures acquiescence in a state capitalist society that is built upon greed, hatred and ignorance.

In truth, being a neutral, impartial and apolitical ‘professional’ is impossible. Not to challenge the status quo is to countenance the misery of fellow human beings in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine and here at home in our poorest, neglected neighbourhoods.

To ignore the might of the military establishment is to boost terror at home and abroad. To remain silent in the face of the corporate hijacking of the energy economy is to acquiesce in possibly terminal climate catastrophe. To do nothing is to vote for disaster.

David Cromwell is the Co-Editor of Media Lens [sign up for free media alerts at www.medialens.org]. His recent book, ‘Private Planet’, is available in North America (IPG Books) and in the UK (Jon Carpenter). See www.private-planet.com for details.

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